The beautiful, opulent Staatsoper Unter den Linden, with its creamy white and gold interior, recently played host to the Berlin Staatsballet’s most recent production of Onegin. Originally created in 1965 for the Stuttgart Ballet by South African born choreographer John Cranko, Onegin is not as well-known by the general populous as classics such as Swan Lake and The Nutcracker, but, as I discovered, maybe it should be.
The ballet follows the story of Tatiana, who falls in love with the handsome stranger Onegin, has a raunchy sex dream about him (in one of the most sensual scenes of the ballet, when Onegin appears in her bedroom through a mirror and proceeds to elevate and entangle himself with his admirer) and sends him a declaration of such in the form of a passionate love letter. At her birthday party however, Onegin returns and tears up the letter, and proceeds to flirt and dance with Tatiana’s friend Olga, who is the romantic interest of Onegin’s friend Lensky (talk about a love triangle right!?) Brokenhearted Lensky challenges Onegin to a duel, which results in the former’s death, and the latter’s disappearance to wander the world, perhaps in guilt and shame.
He returns to find Tatiana married to the Prince Gremin, and in a classic case of male jealousy realises his mistake. In a sudden role reversal, Onegin writes a letter professing his new found love to Tatiana, who hence refuses him, though you can see in the powerful choreography this is a difficult decision for her, as with all her might she fights surrendering into his arms, her laspses into physical weakness denoting the emotional weakness she has for Onegin. As she sends him away she trembles and vibrates with intense emotional charge, and as she stands alone in the concluding spotlight, her body is riddled with a tremble that screams of regret and internal conflict.
Despite the technical excellence, commitment and fierce story telling of the lead roles, the corps de ballet that really are one of the main stars of the show, as they often provide light relief from the emotional torment of the principles. Throughout Onegin, whether it be at Tatiana’s birthday party or the palace of Prince Gremin in St Petersburg, the corps form complex formations that appear and dissolve with clarity and ease. The movement language for these group sections are also extremely fun, unique and quirky, a stand out moment being during Act 1 Scene 1, where the male performers execute Russian folk influenced movements (with an emphasis on influenced, as Cranko’s choreography does not descend into mere mimicry but instead is cleverly informed) in an effort to impress their female counter parts, and visa versa.
While, overall, the plot is fairly simplistic, it is extremely engaging, especially when in the hands of choreographer John Cranko, who is celebrated as a master of narrative and storytelling. It is very digestible, as moments of penetrating emotion are interspersed with moments of humour (such as mimed interactions between couples at Tatiana’s birthday party that featured unwilling women fending off would be suitors, and ecstatic men who are spoilt for choice) and pure dance delight, making the ballet move along at a rapid pace, so that the intervals are shock surprises rather than long awaited breathing spaces.
Reviewed on 19 October at Staatsoper Unter den Linden